AOpen XC Cube MZ855-II review
The small-form-factor (SFF) chassis literally changed the shape of computing. No longer was the PC a beige monstrosity to be hidden away under a desk. It could be displayed proudly on top, without hogging too much space. With so many manufacturers having jumped on Shuttle’s bandwagon, the standard SFF isn’t so surprisingly small. Thanks to the Pentium M, though, that shrinking feeling is here again, with AOpen’s XC Cube MZ855-II at the forefront.
If you place the MZ855-II next to a regular XC Cube, it looks like someone has simply squashed a full AOpen SFF to half size. And it does, in fact, use the same motherboard as the full-height XC Cube EY855. This is a Socket 478 Pentium M board, but uses the older 855GME chipset, rather than 915, so officially supports only 400MHz FSB processors. There are two DIMMs supporting PC3200 DDR memory, plus a 4x AGP slot and a single PCI connector. With Intel Extreme Graphics 2 and a Realtek ALC655 audio chipset onboard, however, you don’t need to add any internal peripherals.
The obvious drawback with such a small chassis is expansion potential. There’s room for only a single 3.5in hard disk and the optical drive must be of the slimline notebook variety. The latter does limit your options and will add a premium, but you can still get dual-layer DVD burners in this format for £100. And with 250GB hard disks now very reasonably priced, the single 3.5in bay isn’t much of a setback either.
To install the drives, you need to remove a complicated crossbar contraption across the top of the case. You’ll also need to remove this to fit the CPU and RAM without extraordinary feats of dexterity. This isn’t an easy SFF to build, because part of the crossbar assembly is permanently attached to power cabling and regulation circuitry, so it must be left dangling while you’re putting the components inside.
Worst of all, the diminutive stature necessitates half-height AGP or PCI cards, greatly limiting your options. PVR TV tuner cards can be found in this format, although you’ll have to change the blanking plate. But few graphics cards are available, and those that are won’t be the most powerful chipsets around. You’re unlikely to find anything that will upgrade 3D acceleration far beyond the existing Intel Extreme Graphics 2.
However, as you’d hope with a chassis that makes aesthetics a priority, it’s extraordinarily quiet. The CPU is actively cooled, but the 70mm fan is almost silent. AOpen claims it produces only 22dBA even at full pelt, which is less than the majority of hard disks. With the passively cooled 150W PSU in an externally attached brick, there are no other fans to increase levels of audibility. So the MZ855-II would be ideal for any location where low noise is a priority.
Despite the size of the chassis, AOpen still manages to squeeze a memory card reader under a flap at the bottom, which supports SD/MMC, SmartMedia, CompactFlash and Memory Stick. This sits beside a full complement of ports, including two USB 2, both four- and six-pin FireWire, and audio in/out. There’s even optical S/PDIF available. Round the back, two more USB 2 ports accompany FireWire, serial, and even a parallel port. However, there’s only coaxial S/PDIF at the rear, alongside the input-sensing audio connections for the 5.1-channel surround sound.
If you do want more expansion, a £58 MZ850e add-on is also available. This is about the same size as the MZ855-II itself and sits on top, adding two 5.25in bays. One of these bays can also carry 3.5in hard disks instead. The MZ850e includes two more USB 2 ports as well. But the utility of this expansion device is rather questionable, as it puts the MZ855-II back up to full height, and you still can’t add regularly sized AGP or PCI adaptors. You may as well get the EY855 instead.